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Breaking the Chain

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     Illustration by Rafael Mayorga and Blake Jones

An investigative look into the new Houston Press guidelines for adult advertising
Words and photos by Amanda Hart

Correction: It was stated that Village Media Group owns and operates 13 print publications. However, due to the recent sales of SF Weekly (which was sold to The San Francisco Newspaper Company four months after VGM took over) and Seattle Weekly (which was sold to Sound Publishing very soon after VGM took over) there are now 11 print publications under VGM.

Editor’s Note:

In January 2012, FPH ran an article in our annual Worst of Houston edition titled “Worst Complicity in Houston’s Worst Crime.” That article focused on uncovering the harsh realities associated with many of the ads found in the back pages of any of the 13 papers then owned by Village Voice Media. The Houston Press is one of those 13 papers, and, obviously, the one to which we here in Houston are most directly linked. Our intent then, as is our intent now, is never to throw stones or discredit the hard work of the HP staff. The Houston Press does a great deal of good work for our city and we acknowledge that wholeheartedly. We are customers of the paper - frequently taking out ads to help promote many of the events we host throughout the year and we appreciate that relationship. It is not without sincere thoughtfulness that we continue to make the choice to explore sensitive topics and print these words. We understand their weight.  The issue of human and sex trafficking is a complex and critical issue that needs to be seriously addressed. This hits closer to home than you might think, and while ads for massage parlors in the back of a local alternative weekly might not seem like a big deal, every little piece of this very big puzzle plays a part in keeping these women and children trafficked. Texas accounts for 25 percent of the human trafficking that comes through the U.S., and Houston has been identified as an “emerging portal for international trackers,” with recent statistics showing that “one out of five trafficked persons pass through our city at some point.” We obviously recognize that the inclusion of these ads isn’t spurred by malicious wrongdoing on the part of the papers that opt to include them. And we recognize that the Village Voice folks are taking some of the steps necessary to begin the process of making changes. We hope our readers choose to approach the following piece with care and consideration for the trafficked women and children who are the sole reason we bring this to your attention.

2012 was a really rough year for the Houston Press and their parent company, Village Voice Media. In January of last year, Free Press Houston published an article that discussed  the troublesome connection between back page advertisements in papers such as the Houston Press and the obvious human trafficking being displayed in the back half of these papers. Shortly after this piece ran, a New York Times columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof, released an op-ed piece entitled, “Where Pimps Peddle their Goods that also fingered Village Voice Media as a key component to the trafficking and sale of girls and women in the United States. Kristof’s piece incited outrage from the community and, in April of this past year, resulted in over 30 major companies pulling their advertisements from the 13 newspapers Village Voice represents around the country. In the months that followed, a national campaign was born that included 19 bipartisan U.S. senators, 51 attorney generals, numerous human rights organizations, and concerned citizens all calling for the regulation or complete closure of Backpage.com and the adult sections of the 13 papers that Village Voice Media owns.

Then, in September of this past year, the unthinkable happened. Village Voice Media announced that they would be dividing their companies into two separate entities. Village Voice Media would become Voice Media Group and would include the chain of newspapers. Backpage.com would go with (former) Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey and chief executive Jim Larkin - Lacey and Larkin choosing to follow the $29 million that Backpage.com generates annually. Voice Media Group and their 13 alternative weekly newspapers would be managed by newly-appointed CEO Scott Tobias and executive editor Christine Brennan. Between the community outrage and the advertisers leaving in droves, all parties saw the split as a mutually beneficial agreement. Voice Media Group was presumably  hopeful that the split would not only rekindle their love with companies that had pulled their advertisements earlier in the year but would also calm the waters within the community. Unfortunately for them, things just kept getting worse. On November 21, Village Voice was publicly humiliated when NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman held a press conference announcing that after a 16-month investigation a $7 million prostitution ring had been brought down. An advertising agency, Somad Enterprises Inc., was the corporation identified in the 180-count indictment that included everything from money laundering to human trafficking. Somad Enterprises Inc. bought advertising space in the back of Village Voice papers. According to Commissioner Kelly, “All anyone has to do is open a copy of the Village Voice to see how classified advertising and prostitution go hand in hand.”

It must have been obvious to Village Voice that this issue needed to finally be addressed because on December 19, Will Bourne, Editor-In Chief of The Voice, published a letter from the editor entitled, “OUR BODIES, OURSELVES: A new Village Voice policy on ‘adult’ advertising.” The letter outlined the tumultuous relationship between the papers and their human trafficking cash cow, Backpage.com. The letter went on to acknowledge the issue their papers face in regards to the human trafficking going on in their back pages. Bourne claimed that, “We don’t know if the trafficking charges against Somad are true, but if they are, then the safeguards we had established were not good enough. Because it is most certainly our place, and our duty, to refuse to be a party to what is altogether different from erotica or even consensual sex work. The Village Voice’s editorial staff will take every step we can to ensure that no one uses our pages to profit from the physical or economic coercion, sexual or otherwise, of any human being. Similarly, and at no small cost to the bottom line of our young enterprise, our publishers are implementing stricter standards across the entire Voice Media Group chain, to make sure that our advertising is as ethical as possible.” The new “adult” advertisement guidelines for all 13 Voice papers are as follows:

  1. All direct advertisers must provide a government-issued ID proving that they are over the age of 18.
  2. All agency advertisers must contract that every client in their ads is over the age of 18 and that all photos are of actual clients.
  3. All advertisers must submit to us that they do not conduct illegal activity.
  4. Any customer known to operate or engage in illegal activities will be blacklisted for life from doing business with us.
  5. Headshots only in the adult ads.
  6. No suggestive language in the adult ads.

On the surface, it would appear that the back page issues that Free Press Houston have been concerned about for many years are finally being acknowledged and dealt with accordingly. Unfortunately, the more we tried to understand the new guidelines the more questions we encountered. When placing a call to the Houston Press, we were told that the new paperwork could be emailed or faxed. The entire purpose of this guideline, one can assume, is to create a sense of accountability in case someone is, in fact, doing something illegal in the back of their pages. However, this guideline proves useless when one considers that anyone could fax over a copy of their mother’s identification and sign her name and they would never know the difference. During that same conversation, a Houston Press representative also mentioned that the images used in the advertisement would not have to mirror the image on the identification. This could lead one to suspect that guideline number two, noted above, is not being strictly enforced because there would be no oversight to verify the age of the person in the photo.  All one has to do is pick up an issue of the most recent Houston Press and flip to the back to find that the stock photos of Asian women in the massage parlor ads have not changed significantly since the new guidelines were announced. Signing paperwork from the comfort of one’s home does nothing to verify with the Houston Press that the images of the women in these ads are over the age of 18. It does not prove their age and, more importantly, does not prove that the women in these pictures are the same women working at the parlors. When we asked a sales manager at the Houston Press  if a photo of a model could be used in a massage ad, they confirmed that as long as a statement was signed ensuring that the signer was not involved in any sort of illegal activity, then using a model for an ad would not be a problem. Another exploratory phone call placed to the Houston Press about the new advertisement guidelines resulted in an exchange where an account executive cited the new paperwork as being “no big deal.” Not only were exploratory phone calls made to help clarify their new guidelines but the process of taking out an advertisement in the back of the Houston Press was also initiated. A fake massage parlor called “Thai Pleasure Houston” was created and an email exchange with the Houston Press was started. The massage parlor representative asked that all business interactions be conducted via email, not over the phone or in person, and that all paperwork also be exchanged only through email. The Houston Press had no problem honoring these requests and was very accommodating.  One email stated, “How much each are sizes?  I want display. I have nice photo.” The Houston Press representative responded by saying, “The rates are based on frequency and size. The longer you run, the cheaper the ad per week. The rates and sizes are attached. Please note that all rates are per week. Also, we can only use head shots in ads and you must have whoever the picture belongs to sign a photo release to us saying we can use their picture in your ad.” No further correspondence on the part of “Thai Pleasure Houston” was made, but the initial interaction between them and the Houston Press representative definitely triggered a few red flags.

It would appear, from these responses, that the relaxed approach to the new guidelines that went into effect in December 2012 are not doing much to actively protect sex workers or combat human trafficking. Creating and enforcing updated and stricter guidelines is absolutely a step in the right direction for the Houston Press and their parent company, Voice Media Group. The new guidelines ultimately do nothing to address the issues that they themselves laid out. Will Bourne voiced his own doubt at the very end of the new guideline announcement when he stated, “Many of us here at the Voice wish these ads would just go away. And, in fact, they continue to migrate online, so that might happen soon enough. There is not much doubt that the new rules are going to make us less appealing to this kind of customer. That is a price we are willing to pay.” In a few short sentences, Bourne managed to marginalize all sex workers, admit the uncertainty of their new guidelines being effective in combating human trafficking, and pat themselves on the back.

In an email correspondence with Mr. Bourne, he was asked if the Houston Press had also implemented the new guidelines he claimed were created for all 13 of their newspapers. He forwarded this response from the Houston Press, “Yes, this has been implemented in Houston.  We’ve actually killed about 20% of our ads in these sections for not turning in paperwork and we have turned business away from clients that do not want to do this.  XXX and XXX have been very good about working with us to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.”  Bourne prefaced this information by admitting that he had no idea whether the Houston Press had implemented the guidelines or not. Bourne claimed that he was just forwarding the Houston Press email along and could not say what, if any, steps had been taken to ensure there was an attempt to protect  the women being advertised in their papers. He stated that he had his hands full with the implementation in New York and that was “complicated enough!”

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Ads taken from the back pages of two different issues of the Houston Press, one before the new guidelines were set in place and one after, show a small reduction in adult ads placed. However, it is clear that many of the questionable ads that have been running for some time can still be found in the back pages of their current issues

Just to be clear, please don’t confuse us for Puritans. The goal in creating a dialog about this topic is not centered around sex being bad or even adult advertisements needing to be abolished. In fact, we think that prostitution should be decriminalized and sex workers be given a safe environment to conduct their business ventures. We just want to call attention to a disturbing reality facing our community. Texas and, more specifically, Houston have been identified as a hub for human trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 25 percent of ALL human trafficking occurs in Texas. This is an issue that plagues our state and even more so our city. Authorities such as the FBI have acknowledged that Houston is a breedng ground for trafficking due to its diverse population and multiple entry points such as the city’s major ports, international airport, and the close proximity to the border. It’s time to set the rose-colored glasses aside and begin the process of demanding that our city and community address this issue collectively.

Neither the individuals who run the Houston Press nor those who work for their parent company are sitting around wondering how they can traffic the next woman into slavery. They are hard-working people who mean no harm. If anyone understands how hard it can be to keep an alternative newspaper up and running, it’s most definitely the staff at the Free Press. We can completely sympathize with how difficult it can be to keep printing costs down and writers employed. It’s not an easy task but there are some very basic steps the Houston Press and their parent company can take to ensure that the back of their pages are safe. For starters, a simple piece of paper that can be signed and faxed or emailed back does absolutely nothing to combat human trafficking. Also, this rule about head shots is odd especially because they do not force strip clubs or phone sex advertisements to also submit head shots. Overall, the new guidelines do little to help victims of human trafficking and, furthermore, just marginalize sex workers even further. There are some very basic steps that can be implemented to potentially help enforce these new guidelines further:

Harris County Precinct 4 has created a regulatory enforcement unit that monitors massage parlors. They created a database of violations that are completely searchable by the public. If you Google the first sentence of this paragraph it will pop up as the first search result. From there, the advertisement department at the Houston Press could easily search this database to see if any of their ads have been cited by the city. After running a few of these ads through this database, one came up within 30 seconds. Sakura Spa on Highway 6 had major violations in every category. Their violations ranged from “no massage license” to “sexual misconduct.”

Another option that could easily be facilitated is sending designated employees out to the addresses that are listed in these advertisements. After taking the time to try out this option, a couple of disturbing details emerged in regards to a few of the massage parlors that are advertised in the back of the Houston Press. I visited 9777 Harwin and was greeted by a locked door. I proceeded to ring the doorbell and was refused access into the building. One could assume with the barred windows that either massage parlors experience an exponential rate of break-ins or they are invested in making sure no one escapes. It can be difficult at times to differentiate between when someone is being forced into prostitution or when someone is working on their own accord, but common sense may show that the women working in these prison-like environments are not living in a free world. When the bushes in front of a massage parlor act as a makeshift clothesline, logic might conclude that it is because women aren’t just working behind those doors, they are also residing there.

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Any paper that chooses to include adult ad sections within their pages should also consider consulting  with sex workers rights groups to help ensure that their back page advertising does  not marginalize legitimate sex workers. Maybe reaching out to groups that focus on protecting sex workers would be a good place to start if there is sincere concern for keeping all parties safe. If anyone deserves to have a voice in this battle it is most definitely the women who work in this industry. There is a way to keep adult ads, protect sex workers and trafficked victims, and also maintain a newspaper’s bottom line. Choosing to include adult ads as a significant revenue stream means added responsibility and commitment from the papers that make this decision. Newspapers with adult ad sections should continue to take the proper steps necessary to guarantee that all resources at their disposal are being utilized to help protect the women and girls in our communities.

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